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Features / November 23, 2012

Robin Anthony Offers Perspective on Art-Judging Tactics, Public-Voted Prizes, Life-Changing Paintings & More

Over the course of her career, RBC curator Robin Anthony has seen a lot of paintings—and that may well be an understatement. The RBC Canadian Painting Competition, now in its 14th year, gets more than 500 submissions annually. Now, as RBC and the Canadian Art Foundation get ready to announce the 2012 winner at the Power Plant on Thursday, Anthony talks with Leah Sandals about the challenges of judging art, the emergence of public-voted prizes, and the canvas that kicked off her curatorial interests.

Leah Sandals: Some fans of the RBC Canadian Painting Competition may have been surprised to see that the finalists exhibition isn’t travelling this year as it has in past years. Instead, the finalists are only being exhibited at the Power Plant in Toronto. Why is that?

Robin Anthony: There were different reasons that made us decide it would just be in Toronto this year. What we did as well, though, was to insert the catalogue into the fall issue of Canadian Art, so that the catalogue was distributed nationally.

Next year, for the 15th anniversary, we’ll be at the National Gallery in Ottawa. So there’s still a plan that the painting competition will be at different museums across the country; it’s just that the budgets don’t allow us to travel across the country multiple times every year like we used to.

LS: Some of the artists involved with this award go on to be quite well recognized, others less so. Why do you think this is?

RA: I suppose it is like any career—those who work hard or are really dedicated to their practice seem to be more successful. Some of it may be timing, some of it may be connections—it’s really hard to say.

Our goal is to give the 15 finalists exposure and to introduce them to members of the art community through the jury and through having a catalogue distributed nationally.

Hopefully, they use the opportunity to meet the jury and to meet other people in the art community and continue those relationships. We do know that many artists have gone on to get dealer representation because of being one of the finalists in this prize.

LS: When an artist applies for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, they can only submit one to three paintings as evidence of their talent. How much can a single painting—or even three paintings—represent the worth or potential of an artist’s entire practice?

RA: It’s a good question. But unfortunately, we don’t know how else we could look at the more than 500 submissions we receive! There’s really a practical reason for that limit on the number of paintings that can be provided for each artist.

Having a jury of nine art professionals from across the country helps balance that out. We rely on their local knowledge to provide information to the other jury members. When deciding between finalists, the jury looks at the submitted paintings, looks at the artist statement, and then there’s a discussion about their practice informed by that knowledge.

For instance, Janet Werner is on the jury this year. If she’s taught any of the artists who are finalists, or if she’s familiar with any of their works in other ways, she would probably comment on that during the jury discussion.

Just to be clear, artists can submit three new works, and then they can submit images of supporting work—it could be installation shots from a group show or a studio shot or whatever they choose. Whenever possible, I encourage artists to have someone look at their submission, because artists are not always the best judges of their own work.

LS: And in terms of the jury’s process deciding on the winner, is it a point system? Is there majority-rules voting? Does it have to be by consensus?

RA: It’s up to the jury to determine. Canadian Art Foundation executive director Ann Webb and myself adjudicate the jury process, which takes about a day and a half. Ultimately, it’s the jury that decides. One year, the jury asked Ann and I to leave the room, and then they made their decision.

LS: We began this discussion talking a bit about the ways a prize can grow and change, and public voting seems like a burgeoning prize trend—not the least because it can be a driver of public engagement with art. How have you considered public voting possibly working in the RBC Canadian Painting Competition?

RA: We haven’t considered public voting in a broad way because, again, we get over 500 submissions. And we want art-community professionals to form the jury—we are awarding the winner $25,000, as well as two honourable mentions of $15,000 each, so we want to make sure that the artists are given really serious consideration.

But that’s not to say there may not be a way to include a people’s choice award of some kind down the road. It’s maybe something we could look at as a supplementary award. Perhaps if people went to the exhibition—because it’s important to see painting in person, I think—they could vote while they were there. That could be a possibility.

LS: You have followed the Canadian art scene for some years, and advised others on it as well. What do you find exciting in it right now?

RA: I think it’s really interesting to see the number of Canadian artists who are getting exposure internationally now. There were several Canadians at Documenta this summer, including Geoffrey Farmer and Gareth Moore. That is encouraging for emerging artists to see, I think.

And there are a number of Canadians that exhibit regularly in New York and are represented by top dealers there. Marcel Dzama is one; Jessica Eaton is another who quickly comes to mind. That’s really encouraging.

We have been trying to acquire works by many of these artists for the RBC collection. We have work of Jessica’s and Geoffrey’s, for instance. Right now, I’m considering a work by Owen Kydd and I’m looking at a painting by Brad Phillips—a former RBC Canadian Painting Competition artist.

LS: RBC’s arts competitions—which also exist in ceramics and film—tend to focus on emerging practitioners. How did you yourself get started in this field?

RA: I have an economics degree from Western University, and in my last year there I took a Canadian art history course as an elective. That got me interested.

After that, I worked in fashion and went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. While I lived there, I spent a lot of my free time in museums and galleries. Then I moved back to Toronto where I worked in fashion, but I started taking art history at the University of Toronto at night.

When Eaton’s, where I worked, closed, Karen Mills and I started an art consulting business together. Then we divided our business into two portions: the fine art advising, which I do, and the public art advising, which she does.

LS: It sounds like that little, final-year art history elective at Western changed your direction considerably. Is there any single painting that you feel has been fundamentally important to you as well?

RA: If I had to name one painting, or one work of art, it would probably have to be Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

When I lived in New York, I went to MoMA often to see it. It’s a formal painting, but at the time the artist painted it, it was incredibly progressive. It’s the one that kept calling me back and holding my attention when I was beginning to get interested in art.

I still go and see it when I’m at MoMA. That’s why museums are so important and so wonderful; you can go and see the best.


This interview has been edited and condensed. To view works from all the finalists in this year’s RBC Canadian Painting Competition, please click here.


Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via